Even though I'd been to Florence numerous times myself, it just didn't feel right to take Nick to Italy and not stop in there, so off the birthplace of the Renaissance we went. I have mixed feelings on Florence: it's so full of beautiful art and history, but with that comes a mind-boggling number of tourists jam-packed into a relatively small city, making it feel much more tourist-oriented than an actual city that Italians live and work in. To make matters crazier, we unknowingly arrived during Florence's busiest week of the year: Pitti, a huge fashion fair, was going on, so the town was up to its ears in models, designers, and the like.
You could spend weeks in Florence, going to museums every day, and not make a dent in the vast number of masterpieces housed in Florence's galleries, palaces, and even piazzas. We only had two days, so we picked wisely and visited the Uffizi Galleries, which have to contain the biggest number of Virgin Mary + Baby Jesus paintings of all time! The collection is impressive, but we knew our limits when it comes to Renaissance paintings, so we spent the rest of our time walking through the cities busy streets, gorging on Tuscan food, and catching up with our good family friend Sergio who came to spend the day with us.
My father studied architecture in Florence, and for that reason alone it will always be a special place for me to visit, but at the end of the day I think Nick and my mom summed it up nicely when I asked them what they thought of Florence: "It's no Rome!" In any event, it was time to leave the crowds behind and head to Austria to see the other half of my family for the final few days of our trip!
All of my relatives except my mother live in either Italy (dad's side) or Austria (mom's side), so I only get to spend time chatting with relatives, reminiscing about the past, and eating classic family meals together about once every few years. After not having been to my father's hometown, Città di Castello, in twenty years, and not having seen my aunt since 2006, I was really excited to come back to Umbria. I wanted to spend our precious time here with family, looking at old photos, reminiscing over the times we spent here with my grandmother when I was a little girl, and walking around the town.
Many people haven't heard too much about Umbria, the "green heart" of Italy. It's in the shadow of its famous neighbor, Tuscany, and while it receives way fewer visitors, in my mind, it offers the vistas that are just as beautiful, food that is just as delicious, and towns that are just is charming, with the advantage of being much less crowded. But of course, I'm a bit biased.
Some of my favorite moments from our short time in Umbria include:
Catching up and goofing around with my Aunt Valeria and her cousin, Gabriella
Visiting the Chiesa di San Franceso, where a copy of Raffaello's painting Lo Sposalizio (1504) adorns a huge wall. This painting was commissioned by one of my grandmother's ancestors to commemorate a wedding in the family. It remained in this church in Città di Castello for over 300 years and is now displayed in a gallery in Milan.
Looking through old family photo albums
Receiving a very special belated wedding gift from my aunt
Checking out the impressive frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi
And of course, enjoying delicious home-cooked Italian meals!
Eating gelato at least once a day while in Italy is completely unavoidable. I am willing to risk not fitting into any of my clothes at the end of my trips there if it means I can stop for ice cream about as many times a day as I refill my water bottle. Gelaterias are almost on every block in most Italian cities, so really, self-restraint has no chance of prevailing here.
The thing about Italian gelato that some people don't like is its "lack" of texture. Most of the flavors are really smooth and creamy; you won't find chocolate-covered pretzels, miniature cinnamon buns, or chunks of raw cookie dough here. And while most gelaterias have a few dozen flavors, I've always been a big fan of the classics like nocciola (hazelnut) or dark chocolate. However, not being one to discriminate when it comes to desserts, I'm also a sucker for trying flavors that I know I will probably not find anywhere else. Some of my favorite finds were caramelized fig (at Giolitti in Rome), hazelnut meringue, ginger + cinnamon (both at San Crispino in Rome), spicy chocolate (at Vestri in Florence), ricotta + pear, and gorgonzola + nuts (both at Gelateria dei Neri in Florence). I'll be back for the remaining 856 flavors that I didn't get to this time, lactose intolerance be damned!
After a pretty tough week back in DC, we decided to head back to Europe and finish our year-long trip up as close to originally planned as possible, with two weeks in Europe. The three of us (me, Nick, and my mom) arrived back in Rome bright and early, and we showed her around all our favorite spots that we had discovered when we were there two weeks before.
The next morning, we took off with our rental car and headed toward the southern Tuscan coast (not before a tiramisu stop at Pompi-- holy mascarpone it was good!). Our original plan was to go to Sardinia, where we would split our time between gorgeous beaches, rock climbing, scenic drives, and avoiding Mark Zuckerberg on his honeymoon, but due to our limited time, we canceled that plan and booked a hotel in Monte Argentario, a small peninsula full of hilltop forts and dotted with a few small towns, for a few days so we could still get some beach time. You probably haven't heard of this area of Tuscany, except for the awful cruise ship disaster off the nearby island of Giglio six months ago. We spent our days at the beach, walking around the small town of Porto Ercole, and sampling the local Tuscan food and wine specialties.
We then headed inland and drove through quintessential Tuscan countryside full of wheat, olive and sunflower fields, and dotted with small, picturesque Etruscan and medieval towns perched atop hills. It's exactly like it looks in the movies, and I love it. My mom hadn't been to Italy in 25 years, and I hadn't been to this part of the country in 20 years, so it was a bit of a trip down memory lane for both of us.
We stopped in tiny, sleepy towns to taste their best meats and cheeses and take in the view. We ate a delicious homecooked dinner with our friends Matt and Emily, who happened to be honeymooning at an agriturismo (a farm B&B) near Montalcino, where we spent a night. This part of Tuscany is lovely not for one particular town or activity, but for the general feel-- the views, the curvy drives, the local foods, the old men shooting the shit in the town square, and of course the famous red wines, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which can be sampled on almost every corner at an enoteca.
Our time in Tuscany felt a bit rushed, but frankly you could spend months here and still wish you could stay just a little longer. Anyway, it was time to head to head to my father's hometown, Citta di Castello, to visit family!
Rome: probably my favorite city on Earth, if I had to choose only one. Our time here was emotional and bittersweet, but Rome's beauty did what it could to try and ease the pain.
We planned the last month of our round-the-world trip to be mostly a family affair. We saved Italy and Austria for last, because we thought it would be comforting to see some of my relatives after being on the road all year, and because it would be a smooth transition back into the "Western world". In addition, we wanted to spend our one-year wedding anniversary somewhere a bit more romantic than say, Hanoi, so we decided to fly from Hanoi to Rome, and my mom would meet us a few days after our anniversary and travel with us to Sardinia, Tuscany, Umbria, and Vienna for the rest of June. We found a wonderful, cosy apartment in an adorable neighborhood right near Castel Sant'Angelo and booked it for the week. I couldn't wait to show Nick around Rome, spend time with my mom after not having seen her for a year, and eat tons of gelato.
Our first couple days in Rome were lovely: the weather was perfect, we did tons of walking, started checking things off the long list of food we wanted to eat (cheese, salumi, pasta, pizza!), did some sight-seeing, celebrated our anniversary, and generally lived la dolce vita.
However, after a few days I got the email I've been dreading to receive all year: my father's health was quickly deteriorating, and this time, it looked like he was nearing the end of his life. My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's seven years ago, and suffice it to say those years have at times been very difficult, painful, and sad. I've watched him go from a strong, independant professor of art to a weak, frail person who could not do anything for himself and who could not recognize me anymore. My heart pounded as I read the emails from his caretakers and hospice team that had been sent while we'd been sleeping. I knew that this had been coming and could have happened at any time during our travels, but I still was not prepared. He was unresponsive and his body was shutting down,they told me, but he was not in pain. I knew there was nothing we could do for him but make sure he was comfortable and well taken care of, which thankfully the team at his assisted living home and hospice were doing a great job of. I knew we had to go home, but I was scared. I was scared to see what one more year of this awful disease had done to him, I was scared of what I knew was going to happen, and most of all, I was scared that this excrusciating process would last longer than I could handle, and that we would fly home and spend days, or even weeks, by his bedside, waiting for the inevitable to happen. We had had false alarms before, and I knew from experience that I would not have been able to handle the waiting.
I was distraught, emotional, and unsure what to do. So I thought about what my father would tell me to do if he were still able to talk to me. He is Italian, and Italy is his favorite place in the world. We used to go there together when I was young, and he continued to visit Umbria (the region where he is from) every summer until he was no longer able to travel. In a way, being in Rome made me feel closer to him than I would have if I were sitting by his side in Washington, DC. I was in a place that he knew and loved, a place full of fond memories from his youth. I was eating the food he always used to cook for me when I was little, the food he hadn't been able to enjoy in several years. I was seeing the sights that made him so proud of his culture and his heritage. It may sound strange, but in a way, I felt as though he was living vicariously through me and we were having these experiences together, one last time. This feeling of connection to him helped a bit to comfort me at times, but during other moments being in Italy made me even more emotional, knowing that my father had not been able to live his life to its fullest during the last years of his life. Nick and I knew there was nothing we could do but wait whether we were in Rome or in DC, so each evening, we checked in and discovered that his condition had not changed, and we made a decision as to whether we should stay another day. As long as we could keep ourselves distracted, perhaps staying in Rome a couple more days was the best thing to do. We took care of practical aspects of planning: I bought a dress for the funeral that I know he would have approved of (it was Italian after all); I reached out to his friends to let them know what was happening; I spoke to him in Italian over the phone, hoping that perhaps somehow hearing my words brought him some comfort. I thought he would have been happy to know I was in one of his favorite places during the last few days of his life.
My father passed away peacefully while we were flying home from Rome. I did not make it to him in time, but I was able to say goodbye to his beautiful homeland for him.